4-5 Dirty Politics And The Doctrine Of The Trinity

A review of the "Letters concerning the Decrees of the Council of Nicaea", published in English translation in the Collection Of Nicene And Post-Nicene Fathers, reveals that Athanasius kept insisting that the church had the right to definitively interpret Scripture, and it was their authority to interpret it as they wished, and therefore no great weight should be placed on the fact that at times their conclusions and dogmas weren't supported by the Bible text. Letter 5.20,21 reads: "The bishops... were compelled to collect the sense of the Scriptures... the expressions [of the proposed doctrine of the Trinity] are not in so many words in the Scriptures". It was not a question of those men being 'compelled' at all- they ought to have been faithful to the Biblical text, rather than demanding that others accept their "sense" on pain of being called non-Christian and cast out of the church. It is this attitude to the Bible itself which ultimately determines whether we accept or reject the Trinity.

The argument between Arius (non-trinitarian) and Athanasius (trinitarian) was more political than it was theological or Biblical. There was a power struggle between the two men. Once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire, power within the church became political power. These two Christian leaders both had significant followings; and they both wanted power. The followers of the two groups fought pitched battles with each other in the urban centres of the empire. There are numerous accounts of Athanasius’ followers beating and murdering non-trinitarian Christians in the lead-up to the Council of Nicea, torturing their victims and parading their dead bodies around (1). The trinitarian Athanasius was by far the more brutal. “Bishop Athanasius, a future saint… had his opponents excommunicated and anathematized, beaten and intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled to distant provinces” (2). As in any power struggle, the opponents of both sides became vilified and demonized; the issue of how to formulate a creed about the nature of Jesus became a matter of polemics and politics, with the non-trinitarians being described in the most vitriolic of language. Non-trinitarians were accused of “rending the robe of Christ”, crucifying Him afresh, and far worse. Sadly this spirit of vilification of those who hold another view has continued to this day, with many trinitarians refusing to accept any non-trinitarian as a Christian. Arius complained in a letter that “We are persecuted because we say that the Son had a beginning, but that God was without beginning” (3). At the Council of Nicea, Bishop Nicholas- who later became the legendary saint of Christmas in much of Europe- slapped Arius around the face (4). It would be wrong to think of the dispute as a matter of learned men of God disagreeing with each other over a matter of Biblical interpretation. Athanasius, who had the ear of Constantine more than Arius, was out for victory. He therefore emotionalized the issue and used every manner of politics and destruction of his opponents in order to get Constantine to come down on his side, exile Arius for heresy, and therefore leave him as the senior churchman of the Roman empire- which meant major political power, in an empire which had newly adopted Christianity and sought to enforce it as the empire’s religion. It's highly significant that the draft 'creed' relating to the Godhead was initially acceptable to Arius; but because Alexander and his side simply wanted Arius 'out', they made the language more extreme; so that reconciliation wouldn't be achieved. And so they added the clause that Jesus was homoousios, of the same substance, with the Father- knowing Arius would have to reject this (5). Again, this was no outcome of sober, sincere Bible study. It was pure politics.

Often I hear the comment ‘Well this matter was all looked into long ago, and wise Christians weighed it up and came to a prayerful conclusion, which tradition Christians rightly follow and uphold’. The history of the matter is quite different, and those who make such statements are sadly ignorant. Athanasius compounded his physical attacks on Arius’ supporters, his burning of their churches etc, with a series of personal slanders against the leading non-trinitarians, calling them seducers, rapists, frequenters of prostitutes, etc (6). If the argument was really just about the interpretation of Scripture, there needn’t have been all this personal attacking and politicking and rioting. Clearly, the issue of accepting the trinity was all about power politics. In any case, we simply cannot allow our personal faith and understanding of God and His Son to be dictated and defined by a church council of many centuries ago. Reviewing the history of the Christian church hardly gives much reason to trust its "councils" to come up with Godly, Biblical decisions. Just think back through the burning of heretics and suspected witches, torture to the death of non-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus by Luther, anti-semitism, the crusades, the Inquisition, church support for Fascism, for war and violence, for making black people stay out of white churches in the USA and South Africa... high level "Christian" decision making has a pathetic record. We really have no reason at all to allow "church councils" to define our view of the Lord, Saviour and Master with whom we are to have an intensely personal relationship mediated by His word. I cannot rest my faith on the shoulders of men; true faith cannot be a secondhand faith. It must trace its origins directly back to the Lord Jesus and His word, rather than back to some cranky guys playing church politics in the fourth century.

Constantine was a politician, not a Bible student. "Constantine's goal was to create a neutral public space in which Christians and pagans could both function... creating a stable coalition of both Christians and non-Christians" in the Roman empire (7). He also realized that Christianity itself had to be united if it were to be the state religion, and so he wanted there to be only one view on this contentious issue of who Jesus was. It was intolerable for him that Christians were rioting against each other over it. The matter had to be resolved. One side had to be chosen as right, and the other side must be silenced. He came down on the side of Athanasius for political reasons- adopted the trinitarian creed for the church, and exiled Arius. And so, Jesus ‘became’ God because of that. In the same spirit of wanting a united church at all costs, Constantine agreed at Nicea to a whole range of other measures which were likewise not Biblical- e.g. that anyone excommunicated by a Bishop in one province could never be accepted in another province, and the appointment of “superbishops” in Alexandria, Rome and Antioch who would decide all contentious issues in future. Personal conscience and understanding didn’t matter; all Constantine wanted was a united church, as he believed it would result in a united empire. One empire, one religion- and therefore, that religion had to be united, and dissent had to quashed. Someone had to be made out as totally right, and someone as totally wrong. Sadly one sees today the very same mentality in so many churches and local congregations. It’s all about power. The mess made in early Christianity remains our sober warning in these last days.

Constantine's Legacy

Constantine's integrity is for me self-questioned by his claim to be "the thirteenth apostle". Such a person can hardly be taken as a founding father of the true church. And add to this his murder of his rivals, boiling his wife to death in her bath and murdering one of his sons. Paul Johnson documents all this, and in the context of the trinity [and other] political agreements, comments: "His abilities had always lain in management... he was a master of the smoothly-worded compromise" (8). Indeed, Constantine wrote to both Arius and Alexander that he considered the theological issues themselves to be of no importance: "Having inquired carefully into the origin and foundation of these differences, I find their cause to be of a truly insignificant nature, quite unworthy of such bitter contention" (9). It really was all just dirty politics- for soon after writing this, non-trinitarians were cast out of the church as infidels and heretics, over an issue which Constantine considered "insignificant". It wasn't many centuries later that the Crusaders raped and pillaged both Moslem and Jewish cities, in the name of the Trinity and justified by the idea that those who didn't accept it, and were monotheists, should be put to the sword. John Calvin, in this spirit, ordered the destruction of Michael Servetus, because he too came to deny the Trinity. For this, he "deserved to have his bowels ripped out and to be torn in pieces" (10). So much for Calvin as a father of the so-called reformation. Nothing very fundamental was reformed. And Michael Servetus was taken to his execution in a dung cart, and burned alive with his anti-trinitarian writings, and the flames were fed with every known copy of his book Christianismi Restutio- a book which called for the restoration of Christianity to its non-trinitarian original form. The downright nastiness of many Trinitarians to non-Trinitarians today, branding them as cults etc., is a continuation of this spirit.

Theodosius And AD381

The Nicaea decree of AD325 was set even further in stone by the decree of Constantinople, issued by the emperor Theodosius in AD381. This edict condemned all other Christian beliefs as heresy, punishable by both the Roman state and also, so he claimed, by God's condemnation. The historian Charles Freeman argues at length that this edict brought about what he calls "the closing of the western mind" (11). All Bible study, theology etc. was now done within the tramlines of the Trinitarian dogma; fear of being accused heretical permeated Christianity. The state controlled the church, and thus the Roman empire became as much a 'one church' state as it did a one party state. Secular law upheld church law. Loyalty to the empire thus became the same thing as loyalty to the church. Once the empire pronounced God as being a Trinity- anything else was seen as subversive and dangerous. And so "'Having faith' could be defined as the virtue of believing what the church believed, and 'the sin of pride' as thinking for oneself" (12). The 'orthodox', Trinitarian bishops were empowered to confiscate the churches and property of heretics, and punish and slay them as required. The libraries and writings of 'heretics' were destroyed. The tradition of intellectual free thought and debate that Rome had inherited from Greece dried up; even Christian art became influenced and limited by the Trinity, triple tiaras started appearing everywhere... and the slide into the dark ages was perhaps hastened by this clampdown on Christian thought. The divisive and condemnatory language used by Theodosius and his supporters in condemnation of non-Trinitarian Christians bears quoting at length: "We shall believe in... the Holy Trinity. We command that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by Divine vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of hostility which we shall assume in accordance with the Divine judgment... [Arians] are wolves harrying the flocks, daring to hold rival assemblies, stirring sedition among the people and shrinking from nothing which can do damage to the churches" (13). This kind of vitriolic recalls the way the Trinitarian Athanasius spoke of non-Trinitarian Christians like Arius: "In every respect his heart is depraved and irreligious... utterly bereft of understanding, heretics show no shame... they are hostile and hateful to God" (14). And so the art of heresy hunting by Christians against other Christians began in earnest. There was no category in Roman law to condemn wrong belief; there were only articles against sorcery. Understanding the Lord Jesus in a non-Trinitarian way was therefore elevated to a seriously criminal offence. Burning alive was the traditional Roman punishment for counterfeiting coins- and this was applied to those who 'counterfeited Christ' by rejecting the Trinity. There arose, therefore, a fear of asking too many questions- as the Bishop of Melitene observed: "We uphold the Nicene creed but avoid difficult questions... Clever theologians soon become heretics" (15). Yet asking questions is a basic tool in the search for Truth, for God, in exploring His word for ourselves. Yet to simply be, in all spiritual, Bible-believing honesty, a non-Trinitarian was painted as an awful sin... and in some quarters, Trinitarian Christianity has the same aggressive, intolerant spirit to this day, associated with a total closedown of thought and intellectual integrity when it comes to the issue of the Trinity.

Why did Theodosius act like this? Why did he begin this process of persecuting anyone who didn't accept the Trinity? It wasn't the outcome of Biblical study, but rather political fears and ambitions. The Roman empire was breaking up, and he urgently wanted to unite the empire through enforcing unity of belief. Further, it had been pointed out that the Gospels present Jesus as a rebel against the Roman empire, a man who claimed to be King in contradistinction to Caesar. The response of Theodosius was therefore to insist that Jesus was God, and His human side was to be downplayed. One recalls the way that the Nazis, in a desperate attempt to get the German church onside with them, likewise ordered the Divine side of Jesus to be emphasized and His humanity as a Jew to be diminished. For one could hardly expect a Christian church to support the extermination of Jewry if the Christ of Christianity were to be title-roled as a Jew. Further, the empire of Theodosius was under attack from the Goths, who had been converted to an earlier, non-Trinitarian form of Christianity. Rather than justify a war of Christians against fellow Christians, it was expedient for Theodosius to slate the Goths as apostate Christians, deserving of Rome's brutality to suppress them.


(1) See Richard Hanson, The Search For The Christian Doctrine Of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988) p. 386.
(2) Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God (London: Harcourt, 2000) p. 6.
(3) Quoted in Rubenstein, ibid p. 58.
(4) Mentioned in Rubenstein, ibid p. 77.
(5) As documented in Charles Freeman, AD381: Heretics, Pagans And The Christian State (London: Pimlico, 2008) p. 54.

(6) These things are chronicled extensively in T.D. Barnes, Constantine And Eusebius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981) pp. 18-27 and throughout T.D. Barnes, Athanasius And Constantius: Theology And Politics In The Constantinian Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

(7) H.A. Drake, Constantine And Consensus (Oxford: O.U.P., 1995). The same author concludes that Constantine realized that Christianity was unstoppable, and therefore it was better to merge with it than seek to destroy it. See his Constantine And The Bishops: The Politics Of Intolerance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2000).

(8) Paul Johnson, A History Of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1976) pp. 67,68.

(9) Quoted in Ian Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence (London: Harper & Row, 1984) p. 165.

(10) As quoted in A. Buzzard and C. Hunting, The Doctrine Of The Trinity (Oxford: International Scholars Press, 1998) p. 155. For more on Calvin's persecution of Servetus, see Marian Hillar, The Case of Michael Servetus (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997).

(11) Charles Freeman, The Closing Of The Western Mind (London: Heinemann, 2002) and also AD381: Heretics, Pagans And The Christian State (London: Pimlico, 2008).

(12) Charles Freeman, The Closing Of The Western Mind (London: Heinemann, 2002) p. 341.

(13) As quoted in Charles Freeman, AD381: Heretics, Pagans And The Christian State (London: Pimlico, 2008) pp. 25,101. There are many similar quotations on record- see Richard Hanson, The Search For The Christian Doctrine Of God (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988) p. 828.

(14) Quoted in Freeman, op cit. p. 70.

(15) As quoted in Henry Chadwick, The Church In Ancient Society (Oxford: O.U.P., 2001) p. 591.



Back Back

Next Next